Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 09 (SC US edition) – John Wagner, Alan Grant

4 out of 5

This is a surprising amount of one-shots – nibbed from the vastly-superior-to-my-reviews Dredd Reckoning, it seems Wagner and Grant were not only double-dutying on the newspaper Dredd strip, but also on a slew of other titles at the same time as these progs – but I was surprised by how well they all hung together. Sharing the same writer(s) for many years has given JD some in-built tonal consistency, but the strip still bounces between some extremes – epics, silly gags, world-building. Here, you can feel the strip starting to mature and evolve, more directly – that is, without a last panel zinger – starting to face up to the terror of living in MC-1; some strips make it very impossible to see Joe and the Judges as anything but enforcers of black and white rulings. There’s still an undercurrent of dark humor, but a lot of these strips carry with them a certain bleakness, even when some surface aspects are completely ridiculous. It seems telling that the final strip in the book is (I think) the first to be credited to Wagner and Grant under their names, and not as T.B. Grover, as though allowing for reality to seep into the series.

Not that there aren’t a slew of things to chortle at here, with more fatties and oddball crims, and Cam Kennedy becomes an all-star artists, imbuing a stylized Gibson look with more grounding and consistency; he may, honestly, be one of my favorite artists up this point. Volume 9 brings with it some soon-to-be all-stars, as well, and who aren’t slouches even at this point: Barry Kitson, John Higgins, Bryan Talbot. Cliff Robinson’s detailed work has stepped in to replace the missing Brian Bolland, and Brendan McCarthy is here in bits and pieces, bringing some extremism into the mix.

The opening tale brings back Chopper, and this was much more exciting than I would’ve predicted. Since getting in to the Dreddverse, I’ve only known Chopper by proxy, not really having seen his character pop up too much, and his intro in American Graffiti was interesting, but didn’t really establish for me why he would’ve hung around as a character to come back to. ‘Midnight Surfer’ – Chopper getting in to air surfing races – clarifies it, turning Marlon Shakespeare into an underdog hero, which is something that can’t exist in Judge Dredd. I mean, to that point, we’ve had plenty of types show up… only to get arrested and / or shot by the end of their run. Or they’re idiots. But Marlon starts to become a more fleshed out figure here (another indication of how the strip was growing), and you get the sense he will survive.

The other longer strip here, Warlord, is why I’m knocking off a star. The ‘tojo’ slang – the strip features a Japanese villain, who resurrects some samurai gods in his bids for world domination – seems bothersome, even for the time it was written, and the stereotypes – though perhaps more understandable as a relic of that same time – are lazy. (I know I have to prep myself for the 90s when the Dreddverse branched out to plenty of other countries and, in tandem, other stereotypes.) But my sensitivities aside, another reason this stuff rankled is because it doesn’t feel like it makes sense for the Judges, and the Mega City. Not that ignorance is by any means gone in this future, but also… kinda? I guess I’ve had this sense of MC-1 as somewhat culturally blind, with all of its prejudices lumped upon the Cursed Earth mutants. Bringing casual racism into the mix, especially when espoused from Joe, slams the setting (and the character) back into the present.

Thankfully, out of this, we get a major plot point – the Long Walk for a Chief Judge. This is another pivotal world-building element, and it’s awesome to experience it “live” instead of via wiki summaries.